Self Tanner vs Bronzer

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So we all know that sun tanning is not good for your skin and tanning beds have the same risks. But we still need that glowing bronzed skin! Self-tanners and body bronzers are a perfect alternative to get that tropical vacation glow without ever leaving your house.

Both are meant to mimic the sun’s natural tanning effect on your skin, and both come without the health risks of tanning in the sun or using a tanning bed.

In this article, we are going to look at self tanner vs bronzer – what they are and their pros and cons, so you can decide which product is best for you.


What is Self Tanner?

Fake Bake Self Tanner

Self tanner is basically a suntan in a bottle. There are lots of different varieties of sunless self-tanners on the market, from lotions and mists to foams, mousses, and serums.

All self-tanners darken your skin by creating a chemical reaction with dead cells on the skin’s surface layer to temporarily darken the skin and simulate a tan. The active ingredient in most self-tanners is DHA.

Self-tanner is meant to be applied to the entire skin surface where you want to be tanned.

We’ve looked at several self tanners. See our reviews here:

What is Bronzer?


Bronzer adds color to your skin to give you that sun-kissed look without UV damage. Body bronzers come in powder, mist, lotion, and spray forms. You can also choose between matte and shimmery finishes.

Essentially bronzers are a topical cosmetic that contains a translucent color that temporarily darkens the surface of your skin, and can be washed off.

Unlike self-tanner, bronzer looks most natural when applied to the areas the sun would naturally hit. Like when using a face bronzer, where you would swipe it on the apples of your cheeks, the bridge of your nose, and the top of your forehead for a natural glow (rather than covering your whole face with it), different bronzer application techniques and combinations can achieve slimming, defining, and darkening effects.

Is Body Bronzer The Same As Self Tanner?

No, body bronzers are makeup, and they do not chemically dye the skin. They wash off in the shower, just as makeup would. Self-tanners are a chemical process that actually dyes the outermost layer of skin.

Self Tanner vs Bronzer

Let’s talk about the pros and cons of self tanner and bronzers.

Staying Power

Self-tanners definitely win out over bronzer in terms of staying power. Self tanners will achieve a longer-lasting tan – up to 10 days (but will start to fade within three to seven days as you naturally shed dead skin cells).

A tan from a DHA-free self-tanner won’t be as dark or last as long as a tan from a self tanner containing DHA.

Because all self-tanners darken by creating a chemical reaction with dead skin cells, your tan isn’t going anywhere for a while. You can carry on doing whatever you need to do, like go to the gym or go swimming and not have to worry about your fake tan melting off or leaving a slick behind you in the swimming pool!

On the downside, if you didn’t apply your self-tanner properly and you’re left with streaks and uneven coverage or you end up with a color you don’t like, you are stuck having to wait it out until it wears off.

Bronzers, on the other hand, have to be applied every day. They’re makeup, not tanners. That’s both good and bad. If you want instant color for just an evening, then a bronzer is perfect. But if you want longer-lasting color, you should go for a self-tanner.


All DHA-based self tanning formulas produce a telltale smell. Though they also usually contain other ingredients to try to mask it, we’re putting this into the win column for the bronzers.


Application of both self tanner and bronzer can take a bit of trial and error to apply to get the perfect results you are looking for.

That having been said, Bronzer edges out self-tanners in this category because if you don’t like the outcome, you can just jump into the shower and wash it off.

For a self tanner, you will probably need a mitt, and you may need help applying it to your back. If you want to try without a mitt, see here.


When it comes to self tanners – the key is moderation. If you have someone’s event you are attending in November and you want to liven up your pasty white complexion, then using a self tanner every once in a while for a special occasion is not going to do you any harm.

But If you are using self tanners all the time to get a year-round tan, like you have a secret tropical holiday house that you jet off to every couple of weeks, then maybe you need to rethink your tanning strategy.

DHA, which is the active ingredient in self tanners, has been linked to long term side effects with frequent use. There are now DHA-free self tanners. But are they safer? We will get into details below.

Because bronzers are basically topical cosmetics and don’t contain anything particularly harmful (that’s been discovered) and you can just wash it off. Bronzer is perfectly safe to use whenever you want.

Is self tanner bad for your skin?

The active ingredient in most self tanners is dihydroxyacetone (DHA). It’s been found that the free radicals released by DHA cause oxidative stress that can accelerate skin aging, which translates to fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and sagging.

DHA is also lowers Vitamin D levels and has been linked to long term DNA damage. In addition, these side effects will increase with sun exposure during the first 72 hours of application (while the chemical reaction is taking place).

With all this talk about the side effects of DHA, we’ve seen the recent introduction of DHA-free self tanners, so you’d think those would be the safer bet, right?

The active ingredient in DHA-free self-tanners is erythrulose. Well it turns out that not only is erythrulose very similar in structure to DHA, but it also triggers the same side effects as DHA. So DHA-free self tanners are still linked to the same skin aging, DNA damage and lowered vitamin D production as self tanners that contain DHA.

Take Away

In the battle between self tanner vs bronzer, they each have their own merits and drawbacks. If you are looking for a product to give you instant tanned glow that only lasts until your next shower, bronzer is the way to go.

If you are looking for a no fuss way to darken your complexion for a week or so. Don’t be fooled by DHA-free self tanners as they carry the same risks as self tanners containing DHA.

To make things even more confusing, many self tanners contain bronzers to give instant color until the actual DHA does its thing.

Written by Kayla Young

Kayla is the founder of LuxeLuminous. She has worked professionally in the tanning industry for years. She has been interested in esthetics since childhood, and has tried every hair, skin, and makeup product ever produced (more or less).